Bubbles to the brain, diver sends a warning
Experienced diver Kate Martin thought she was going to drown when she lost control of a cough 19 metres below the surface off Portsea in Victoria.
“Looking for crayfish, suddenly I coughed really badly, and I had to really focus on calming down. I grabbed my instructor friend and he watched me while I got my cough under control. But 10 seconds later I had a massive pain and pressure in my head.”
Kate said decompression illness (DCI), or the bends, wasn’t on her mind, but she knew something wasn’t right.
“I looked down at my computer (watch), and my vision was blurred, and I signalled to my diving partner that we need to go back to the boat. We still did a safety stop, even though my head felt like it was going to explode.”
"I thought it was a bad mixture of tank air. We all thought it was the air I was breathing.”
Kate had recently visited The Alfred’s Dive Night, an educational session hosted by the Hyperbaric Unit, where she learned more about DCI and how to stay safe. But she says her experience was so different than how she’d imagined someone could get the bends.
“It didn’t happen the way we learn about it – by surfacing too quickly."
Back on the boat, Kate’s group gave her oxygen. Her partner took her to get medical help locally, and after a few tests the doctor sent Kate home.
The next day, after waking up feeling awful, Kate called The Alfred’s Hyperbaric Unit.
“I was told to come to the Emergency Department immediately. It was the best and fastest treatment I’ve ever had. Multiple staff were helping me, they took me straight in for scans and then into the hyperbaric chamber for five hours.”
Kate’s doctor, hyperbaric specialist Ian Millar, concluded that when she coughed, she caused a small muscle to tear in her lung allowing dangerous bubbles to enter her system and travel to her brain.
“It’s an uncommon but not undocumented way of suffering neurological DCI,” Dr Millar said.
“If it’s a large tear in the lung a diver can suffer a cardiac arrest and die. It’s a serious condition but in Kate’s case fortunately it was a smaller tear, and a minor amount of bubbles entered her system and went to her brain.”
After three sessions in the hyperbaric chamber, Kate was feeling better, but recovery would take months.
“Kate’s brain was inflamed, different from damage from a stroke, but the inflammation will impact brain function,” Dr Millar said.
Kate is sharing her story in the hope that other divers will learn from her experience, and never ignore signs of feeling unwell after diving.
“I knew I should’ve gone to The Alfred straight away; I don’t know why I didn’t.”
Dr Millar says all diving buddies need to take Kate’s case as a learning opportunity.
“I think the people who need to be reminded are the family, friends and dive buddies because one of the characteristics of a minor brain injury, which is what happened to Kate, is that the person doesn’t think clearly. Once you’ve got the problem, we cannot blame people for not presenting straight away. If one of your team members is not quite right, tell them to go and get help.”